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Meeting Mr. Lee

From Mt. Kailash the road to Ali follows the path of the powerful Indus River, making drinking water relatively easy to find. I recalled from my previous trip that the road made a sharp turn to the east just before it reached the town of Ali. My supply of water was starting to run low, but I thought that I was close to Ali and would just wait until I reached the town. After a couple hours of building thirst, I double-checked my maps and unfortunately learned that it was 20 miles more to Ali after the road turned to the east, not just 5 miles like I had previously thought. The map seemed to indicate that it was a ways before the road got closer to a river again. I started into my typical pattern of constantly scanning the horizon for any signs of water, vegetation, changes in the color of the sand and rock, reflections of small ponds, any kind of clue to indicate the existence of drinkable water. As the hours and miles went by, my thirst became more and more incapacitating, making it difficult to continue. If I stopped I would not be able to make any noodles because I did not carry enough water to cook with. I had to push on so that I could rehydrate myself and make some food to eat. I stopped and rested when I had a chance, inching my way closer to Ali. After hours of struggling with no drinking water in sight, I finally broke down and decided that I would stop the next truck that came by and ask for a ride into town. This marked a major psychological step for me since I had never taken a ride on this trip before, but I could barely move on. Once I made the decision, a few minutes later a truck came down the road, unfortunately it traveled away from Ali. Somehow the driver of the truck must have sensed that something was wrong. The man stopped and asked if I was doing all right. When I asked him if he had any extra drinking water he tossed me a can of Chinese orange soda pop. I gratefully thanked him for what he could spare. We said our goodbyes and then moved on. The small amount of soda gave me a little more energy. With that I continued to crawl closer to Ali. Not too much later another truck came down the road, this time headed toward Ali. I flagged down the truck. The driver stopped, and I asked if he could take me into Ali. The truck driver knew that Chinese law forbid him from carrying foreigners in his truck, and he did not want to risk losing his license and his job. I asked if he could spare some water. One of the passengers had a little extra water that he poured into a partially full beer bottle from the floor of the truck. What a welcome treat. Once again I gained a small amount of energy and continued to move on.

From my maps I knew that a river flowed just north of the road but that could range anywhere from 1/4 mile to 4 miles away. The terrain out to the north consisted of small sand dunes standing from 10 to 20 feet [3 to 7 meters] high making it difficult to spot a river that I knew flowed only a few yards wide. I had been running on empty for the last few hours. At a point right before the road started to turn south again, I decided that I could not go on. I started walking north in search of water. Just 60 feet [20 meters] off the road I stashed my bike behind a group of small bushes, but even carrying my bike that short distance through the sand required an immense amount of energy. I gathered all of my water bottles and my trusty water filter for the journey on foot. I made mental notes of the major landmarks near my bike and then started off on a straight line that I thought followed the shortest route to where I hoped to find the river. I could not afford to waste time and energy circling my way through the sand dunes. I slowly made my way up and down the dunes and through the sand marking an easy trail for me to find my way back to my bike. My body ran on auto-pilot as I walked like a zombie across the desert. I could just barely manage to keep my feet moving forward, hoping that I would find something to drink. After about 20 minutes of lethargic walking, I saw a small river of rippling water. I rejoiced in finding the fluid that would bring me back to life and knelt at the edge of the water to filter my first drink. It did not take long to fill my belly with water. I continued to filter more water for the other bottles, and by the time I finished my dehydrated body craved another quart of water. I was thankful to have this essential component of life coursing through my being again.

Ali is the capital of Western Tibet. Ugly concrete buildings fill the town that serves as a base for the military, truck drivers and traders. It lies roughly midway between Lhasa and Kashgar. The trucks that travel this remote route are forced to carry a vast array of spare parts and at least one 50-gallon drum of fuel. Once they make it to Ali, they can refill their fuel tanks and find just about anything else needed to continue the journey. The famous Mr. Lee also resides in Ali. Each province in China is broken down into counties, that have a county seat, and a corresponding police headquarters. Ali is the county seat of the north Western region of Tibet, and Mr. Lee works as one of the police in charge of this area. Most all the travel guidebooks that talk about the routes through Western Tibet have some mention of Mr. Lee and his encounters with previous travelers. In my previous trips through Ali I fortunately avoided Mr. Lee by traveling through town during the middle of the night-in this way trading my encounters with police for possible encounters with packs of dogs.

Ali straddles the banks of the Shiquanhe River. The main streets of town consist of a large T intersection. One road from the south comes from Mt. Kailash, this road continues on through town to become the road to Kashgar. To the east runs the north road through Western Tibet that goes back toward Lhasa. As I approached town in the warm afternoon sun, I knew that I could not avoid an encounter with Mr. Lee this time. I had planned it so that my Chinese visa expired on the day that I arrived in Ali. In that way Mr. Lee would be forced to give me a visa extension, because the trip to the nearest border crossing with either Nepal or Pakistan required at least two weeks. As I got closer to the edge of town I saw what looked to be two young and dusty Westerners sitting on the side of the road.

Chris and Adrian had just hitched a ride down from Kashgar and were trying to get to Lhasa. We all talked for a while, and I explained to them what they could expect on the road back to Lhasa and they told me about the lack of fine dining establishments on the road to Kashgar. It had taken them ten days to travel the almost 900 miles between Kashgar and Ali. It seemed that their truck was unable to travel for more than an hour at a time without breaking down. The three of us walked back into town over the bridge and past the abandoned guard station. Chris pointed out the hotel where they had gotten special permission to stay the night before. After a 20-minute argument with the owner in Chinese, she reluctantly allowed me to lock my bike in an empty storage room. When we finished lunch, I made the trip down the street to the Ali Hotel. The police office resided inside the only official foreigner hotel in town. It made it much easier to catch illegal travelers if the attendant at the front desk of the hotel just notified the police down the hall whenever new foreigners showed up.

Mr. Lee introduced himself in excellent English, as I sat down in front of his desk. I showed him the permit that the Darchen police had written for me. I explained that I needed a visa extension so that I could get back to Lhasa to meet my wife. I thought he might have more sympathy for that story than for the illegal activities that I was actually involved in. On the side of his desk sat a few different English short story books, alongside those rested books of Chinese poetry. Mr. Lee informed me that he had taught himself English. It was all too obvious that he was an intelligent man with endless spare time. By this point in my trip, my clothes had not been washed for at least a month. Layers of dirt covered everything I had. You look like a sportsman. Are you riding a bike? Mr. Lee inquired. I quickly replied, No. Before I had been riding a bicycle, a few months earlier on this trip in a different part of China. I knew that if he found my bike that he would have to confiscate it. I would not have the same good fortune that I had down in Darchen. A few days earlier Dominique and Damien told me that Mr. Lee had stopped them in Ali. During a conversation over lunch they mentioned to him that they thought of riding bicycles out to Ali from Lhasa, but in the end decided that it would be too difficult. Mr. Lee politely responded, with Well, if you would have ridden bikes to Ali, I would have been forced to confiscate them. With this conversation floating though my head I knew that there was no way that I could allow him to know that I possessed a bike, otherwise my trip would be over. After a short discussion with his boss in the other room, Mr. Lee told me that he would be able to give me a visa extension for one more month, but I would have to stay here in the Ali Hotel for the night. I thanked him greatly for the extension and started to leave the room. Where is your luggage? he asked. Oh, I dropped it at another hotel down the street. Ill go pick it up now. I answered. Being a polite man, he said I can help you carry it back here. After I refused his help three times, he finally relented.

I spent the rest of the afternoon buying supplies for the journey across the highest section of road in the world. I stocked up on dried fruit, dried fish, peanuts, raisins, noodles, chocolate and 761 Army Biscuits. 761 Army Biscuits are one of those rare food products that I have only seen in Western China. They come in a simple rectangular package a few inches across with a dark green figure of a Chinese solider on the label. The translation of the label reads, 761 Compressed Food, Contains: protein, sugar, fat and calories. On my first trip to Tibet it took me a month or two to figure out that 761 biscuits were edible. I had always passed them by when I saw the military looking packages in the shops, thinking that they were some kind of spare parts or fuel. Each pack contains four baked flour and sugar biscuits with the consistency of small dirt bricks, but they are indestructible and last forever and eventually became one of my food staples. Most of the packages that I purchased during the summer of 1994 had a manufacturing date of 1989 stamped on them and I dont think that they even contain any preservatives.

Once again, I knew that I would have to skillfully ration out my food to make it across the Askin Chin. As darkness settled in, I returned to the hotel where I had locked my bike. The owner happily allowed me to remove my bike from her hotel, because she knew that she would receive a fine if the police found it. In the darkness I pedaled as fast as I could to a side door of the Ali Hotel. Once I made sure that no one occupied the hall, I wheeled my bike into my room. I quickly taped some pieces of an unused map over the hall window, so that no one could see inside my room. With a little work I fit my bike underneath the bed.

I had planned to stay another day in Ali, to rest, eat and make a feeble attempt to gain some weight, but like so many times before other factors cut my rest day plans short. In the early evening I had rapidly fallen asleep. Later the knocking of a large Chinese man at my door woke me up. When I first awoke I had no idea what time it was, I thought that it was only 10 or 11 oclock. I opened the door and we exchanged a few words. Once I realized that it was 3 A.M. and my visitor had drunken too much, I shooed him out of my room, telling him that I felt very tired and needed to get back to sleep. After a short 10-minute rest, the visitor returned to my room and banged on the door again. I yelled out that I needed my sleep and that he should go away. For some reason unknown to me, he proceeded to loudly pound on my door for the next 40 minutes, yelling that I should open the door for him. During that time I heard someone else in the hall, speaking in Chinese, about the American on a bicycle. Once I heard that, I knew that somehow people had discovered that I had a bike in the room, and by morning Mr. Lee would be made aware of the situation. After shouting at these men at the top of my lungs, they finally left, enabling me to get a few hours sleep. I knew that I had to leave town before sunrise, which was only a two hours away.

No matter how much I disliked getting up early, sunrise always signaled one of the most beautiful times of day in the desert. I made a quick stop in a Muslim restaurant for a few round loaves of bread and boiled water, and then started the climb out of town. The road wound up passed an army camp and on through the trash dump. For the next couple of days, I kept a watch on the traffic that came from Ali. By the time I saw the dust trail of a vehicle in the distance I would carry my bike off the road down into a ditch or behind a few low bushes. I could not afford the risk of Mr. Lee or his boss catching me only a days ride from Ali. I had lived in the silence of the desert long enough to feel when a truck approached. The first indication of a distant truck starts as a ultralow frequency that I would feel in my entire body, much more of a sense than an actual sound. After looking around, I could usually spot a narrow cloud of dust miles in the distance rising up into the sky. That would allow me a few minutes until the truck passed where I stood.

In my hurry to leave town I did not fill up all of my water bottles. As it turned out, more than 40 miles separated Ali from the next source of drinkable water. When I saw the nomad tents out in the distance I knew that luck had come my way. For the last couple of hours I had struggled to keep turning the pedals to get closer to some place where I could find water. When I left Ali, I also left the Indus River valley. For the first time in almost a month I was not riding in the massive valley that lies between the Himalaya and the Gangdise Range of Tibet. The mountains that I rode in had a familiar feel, they were the same rocks and peaks that I had seen two years before in Ladakh, on the other side of the border in India. According to my map it was only 40 miles to the old historic border post with India that traders had crossed for hundreds of years.

In most of China, just about all road construction is still done by hand. That means that there are large crews of lower class workers with picks and shovels who actually build the roads, moving dirt and breaking up boulders with steel and muscle. These workers usually live in small bamboo and plastic shacks on the side of the road. In Tibet the workers all come from Sichuan and other Han Chinese provinces where there are more hands than work. They come to Tibet and Xinjiang Province for the summer to make money on a road crew. When winter returns, they retreat to Chengdu, and other warmer locations in central China.

As I approached Rutog, I first rode through the construction camps. The workers on the sides of the road chatted with excitement upon seeing a foreigner in this barren land. Most Chinese think life in far Western Tibet is like some kind of hell devoid of all culture and civilization. They all smiled and waved, a few people yelled out ni qu nar? (You go where? in Chinese). Only ONE road cuts across far Western Tibet, it continues across the Askin Chin, then on to Xinjiang Province and finally arrives in Kashgar. When I replied, Kashgar! there was still a bit of shock on their faces. I knew that most of them must have thought that I was somewhat crazy to be out there to start out with, but to say that I planned to ride my bike to Kashgar confirmed any doubts.

By the time I stopped my bike and got a chance to look around in one of the small shops, a crowd of 30 to 40 people had encircled my bike and me. The Chinese shopkeepers all tried to act calm and cool, like it was no big deal. I am sure that they had all seen many foreigners before in other parts of China. Meanwhile the Tibetan kids buzzed in a wild frenzy, so excited that some strange inji had come to visit their town. As I moved from shop to shop looking for jarred fruit and dried noodles, the entire crowd moved with me. Everyone speculated what my water bottles contained, some thought that they held gasoline for my engine, but others thought they held alcohol, maybe to numb the pain of traveling through this harsh land. The bike computer on the handlebars was the other object of great fascination and speculation. When I demonstrated that my bike computer could tell me how many kilometers I had traveled and what the current altitude was it left everyone dumbfounded. After a couple inquiries I discovered the location of the post office. I had learned much earlier that in order to mail anything from remote post offices like this, I should carry my own postcards and stamps. The post office had been closed but because I was a special guest of sorts, they opened it up for me, pushing a six-foot-high [2 meter high] file cabinet out of the way so that we could enter the office. A couple months after my return to the USA, the card that I had mailed from Rutog actually arrived in Seattle. That postcards own journey around the planet would have been a tale worth listening to.

It took about an hour and half for the police to find me. These guys did not represent the sharpest law enforcement officers in the world. I had been talking with the owners of a Muslim restaurant when the police walked in with their belts full of small silver bullets. It reminded me of a scene out of a Wild West movie, the only problem being that I had the role of the outlaw on the run from the law. After all I did wear a red bandanna around my neck that I often covered my mouth and nose with, looking like quite the Western outlaw. The two Tibetan policemen asked me in Chinese, ni de huzhao (Your passport). I switched to my normal play dumb with the police mode, and pretended not to understand what they said. They both talked among themselves in Tibetan, saying a few things about my stupidity, and how I should have special paperwork to be there. Finally after about fifteen minutes of getting nowhere, they started to insist that I accompany them to the police station. This was not something that I wanted to do. I wanted to come to some kind of resolution there in the restaurant. Reluctantly, I pulled out my passport. I heard the head guy say to the other that this was not even a passport. Even Mr. Lee back in Ali had problems reading my passport. Trying to figure out which of my Chinese visas was the most current confused him. Finally I showed them the page in my passport that had my new visa extension from the police in Ali. I knew that they would be able to read the characters for Ali, and would therefore know that I had visited Mr. Lee and that he granted me permission to continue my trip. I continued pointing to the stamp from the Ali police, saying the Chinese name for Ali. I hoped that since the Ali office was the regional headquarters they would not be able to question a stamp I had gotten there. Once again, after I managed to tire them out with a certain pretense of stupidity on my part, they decided that I could go on. After all I was headed to Kashgar, the closest legal place for foreigners, even though it was 700 miles away.

In 1948, Lama Govinda and Li Gotami crossed from the Ladakh region of India to the then independent country of Tibet. They described this epic journey to Mt. Kailash in the classic book Way of the White Clouds. Lama Govinda was one of the first Westerners to ever become an ordained Tibetan Buddhist Lama and bring some of the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism to the West. Years before I read of his explorations of a massive lake called Pangong that spanned the Ladakh-Tibet border. Many pages in the book depicted the ever-changing blue, black, and green colors of the lake and the surrounding mountains.

After my encounter with the police in Rutog, I decided I should get out of town and not press my luck. It was just a few more miles to the shores of Pangong Lake. The shoreline seemed like a restful spot where I could take a day off, and do some reading and napping. The only problem was that Lama Govinda mentioned in his book that the water was contaminated and not drinkable. On the other hand, the famous modern day Himalayan walker, Hugh Swift, in his guidebook on this area stated that he found the water in the lake to be drinkable. My mind started to wonder, would I even know if I drank contaminated water, or would I just go to sleep one night with a belly full of poison water and not wake up the next morning. I rode on a bit more and found a fresh water spring on the shoreline. I did not want to take the risk of drinking from the lake.

When I looked at my watch it read July 4th, Independence Day. I took a moment to reflect on my home and the land of America. Whenever I left the USA, one of the places that I came to appreciate the most was my homeland. Not until I lived under marshal law in Lhasa did I start to truly understand the nature of the political and religious freedoms that we Americans enjoy almost unknowingly. I always knew that when I walked the streets of Lhasa my US passport afforded me certain privileges that the Tibetans around me will never have under Chinese rule. I have always been pleased by the fact that I came from a country of foreigners, a land of asylum seekers, immigrants, refugees and descendants thereof.

I spent my holiday reading Annie Dillards Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, the only book that I carried with me on the trip. During the course of months on the road, I read and reread sections of this wonderful book about Annie Dillards explorations of the woods and streams around here home in rural Virginia. She told tales about totally different sorts of adventures than what I was experiencing in Tibet but I think that at points in time we arrived at similar mental states. The lives and deaths of the bugs, insects and small animals that inhabited the region near her home taught her an enormous appreciation of the complex and interdependent web of life on this planet. Both of us also came to understand time from a much large scale, a scale of thousand and tens of thousands of years rather than the minuscule span of a human life.

During the course of the next day, I passed many sources of water that were littered with the bones of animals. I searched for signs of campfires around springs indicating that Tibetans had camped there and drank the water. A yak skull right in the middle of a spring seemed to indicate that the water may not be drinkable. I did not want to risk it. I rode on still a bit thirsty.

At the Mountain | A Different Kind of Freedom | Leaving Tibet